William Carlos Williams was a rebel. The Red Wheelbarrow is revolutionary for its simplicity. While many of his contemporaries wrote poems that locked up meaning like precious jewels in secret rooms, Williams wrote poems that captured ordinary moments and ordinary objects, such as a red wheelbarrow. Think of The Red Wheelbarrow as a painting rather than a Waldo puzzle. Think of it as a tribute to a tool that is thousands of years old and rarely appreciated. In no time will you write poems about forks.
So seriously, what’s the poem about? It’s as simple as it looks—the speaker reflects on the importance of a red wheelbarrow. This wheelbarrow is wet with the recent rain, and there are white chickens hanging out with the wheelbarrow.
You know, this is a kind of poetry called a free verse. There are no rules of rhyme or rhythm like we have seen in other poems. The entire poem is just one sentence long—divided into four couplets. On its own the expression reads, “so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.”
If we break this sentence down, English class-style, we realize that the subject of the sentence is “so much,” the verb of the sentence is “depends,” and the direct object is “the red wheelbarrow.” So, even though, “the red wheelbarrow” is the featured item of the poem’s title, it is not the subject of the sentence. Why is this important? Well, it just helps us poet detectives understand whether we should be more interested in the “so much” or in “the red wheelbarrow.” What do you think? You’ll notice that there is no punctuation and that no words within the poem are capitalized.
You’ll also notice that, in each couplet, the first line is way longer than the second line,
making it look as though the first line depends upon the second line, or as though the second line supports the first. Sometimes how a poem looks is just as important as what it says.
This poem uses enjambment (purposely having the sentence go over from one line into the next) to split the word “wheel” from the word “barrow.” This makes us think about wheelbarrows more carefully. We realize that, just like the word “wheelbarrow,” a wheelbarrow is composed primarily of two parts: a wheel and a barrow (the part you put stuff into).
The word rainwater is also broken up, and white and chickens separated. There’s probably a reason for this. What could that be?
One of the important techniques Williams uses a lot is called assonance. Assonance is the repeating of the same vowel sound. It’s kind of like the cousin of rhyming (matching the ending sounds of words) and alliteration (repeating consonant sounds). Williams does this a
lot: the long “a” glazed and rain, and then again in the “i” sound of beside and white. Assonance is kind of like alliteration in that it’s only there to sound pretty to our ears.
To me, this poem sounds like a gentle rain that has just let up. You know the sound. There is no longer the consistent tap-tap-tap of raindrops, but there is the occasional plop of a raindrop tumbling off of a tree branch or a gutter. The world outside is still wet and dripping. There’s a hushed tone in this poem that makes us want to put on our socks and tread quietly whenever we are around it. Because there aren’t many words in this poem, we feel like we need to be really quiet in order to understand every one of them.